Cinema came to Bucharest in 1896 with the projection of the Lumière brothers’ films. The first Romanian film, Romanian Independence, was made in 1912 and the pre-war industry produced many silent and sound classics. The industry was heavily influenced by the arrival of communist rule in 1947, after which cinema grew but censorship and propaganda hindered creativity.
The beginning of the new century, which marked a decade since the fall of the dictatorship of Ceausescu, saw the advent of a new wave of Romanian directors who have shined on the international scene. They shared the same background, having acquired field experience working for European productions that were being filmed in Romania thanks to the cheap labour force.
Recognizable for their minimalist filmmaking, which was often due to scarce resources, these directors are obsessed with authenticity. The films below all share a preoccupation with Romanian identity and the way in which the country is moving on after the years of dictatorship.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days follows two young Romanian women who should not have to worry about anything else but their exams but who end up having to break the law. One of them, Gabi (Laura Vasiliu), is pregnant. Under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, his pro-natal policy punishes abortions by the death penalty. Christian Mungiu’s film questions how far one would go for a friend. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) does not blink and takes Gabi’s fate into her own hands. The illegal abortion is scheduled but it has a price.
This film is not about debating pro-life arguments but about putting up resistance to an oppressive regime. The motivation of Gabi is never disclosed; the only thing that matters is her choice as a woman. From the narrow university room to the hotel room, the motif of the cell opens and closes the film suggesting their struggle for freedom. At last, Otilia stares at the dead foetus. A poignant scene that condemns the only possible outcome of a totalitarian state: waste.
A drama shot as a thriller where the psychological state of the victims is emphasized. Accentuated by the documentary style, a sense of sordid realism is created as if Mungiu wanted to remind us that this fiction was once a reality.
12:08 East of Bucharest
While many may find the recent history of Romania to be a gloomy one, Corneliu Porumboiu addresses the past with humour and genius, skilfully combining the strange bedfellows of humor and politics. A provincial TV station schedules a show dedicated to the 22nd of December; the day of Ceausescu’s overthrow. The program questions whether the population went onto the street before or after 12:08 – the time when Ceausescu was shown on television fleeing Bucharest by helicopter. In other words, it questions whether the revolution was really led by the people.
Add an alcoholic teacher, a retired Santa Claus and a ruined TV producer, and you get an absurd debate within a deadpan comedy, in which no one can agree on what really happened that night. A Kafkaesque look at society reflected by the film’s cinematography, which oscillates between inertia with long sequence shots and confusion during the TV show. His clumsy framing and abrupt zooming alludes to the fragility of conceptions of the past.
The Death of Mister Lazarescu
Memorable for its epic length, but above all for its peculiar narrative, this mordant black comedy is a caustic critique of the Romanian health system. Mixing humanity and deadpan humour, director Cristi Puiu relates the epic agony of Dante Lazarescu as he travels from his flat in the suburbs of Bucharest to his hospital bed. This perfect anti-hero portrays a society in decay, with a broken health care system which cannot offer even basic treatment to Mr Lazarescu.
Tragically Cristian Nemescu died in a car accident during post-production of his film California Dreamin’, which remains a testament to his talent. The film is set in 1999, during the Kosovo war, during which a train of American soldiers is forced to stop in a remote Romanian village because they lack a valid written authorization to pass through.
Nemescu did not fall into the pitfall of East/West caricatures and successfully delivered a rich tragic drama. After waiting in vain in 1945 to be freed from communism by Americans, the latter disappoint them in 1999 by bringing death and chaos instead. From excitement to disillusion, the dream turns into a nightmare.
The Happiest Girl in the World
The first sequence of The Happiest Girl in the World introduces us to Delia, the chubby and grumpy 18-year old girl ironically referred to in the title. Her parents are driving to Bucharest for the first time to collect a brand new car their daughter has won through a juice brand’s lottery. A godsend for the modest provincial family struggling to make ends meet. The only fly in the ointment: she has to perform in the new juice promotional spot. All she has to do is sip a bit of juice and tell the camera: “she is the happiest girl in the world”.
Ten thousand takes and sips later, this introverted girl still cannot act; she becomes stuck in this endless nightmare, torn between her parents who want to sell the car and the producers who want her to sell her soul for juice. This tragicomedy evokes the harsh transition of Romania to capitalism. Advertising is a mirror of their new society embracing a vacuous culture: consumerism — privileging money over people. Director Radu Jude entertains and informs us simultaneous